Canada should take the lead in processing rare earth minerals as its allies seek to spread their supply chains out in order to avoid over-reliance on exports from authoritarian countries like China, said a panel of experts.
While China holds the lion’s share in providing for the global market of critical minerals and rare earths, it does not share the same environmental and labour standards as the western world, noted experts at a virtual panel discussion hosted by Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) on Oct. 22.
“China has the market on 80 percent of the processing of critical minerals and rare earths, so the whole world is beholden to China. Our supply chains are completely beholden to China,” said Maryscott Greenwood, CEO for the Canadian-American Business Council, in a pre-recorded video for the panel.
Greenwood said Canada has the expertise to mine in an environmentally responsible way, along with the manpower and infrastructure, to process and export critical minerals essential for the defence sector, electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and smartphones.
“What if Canada became the world headquarters of processing of these critical minerals and rare earths that you can dig up anywhere but what if they’re all sent to Canada to process?” Greenwood said, noting several provinces such as Alberta and Quebec have shown interest in developing processing facilities.
The panel discussion also featured experts including Dirk Naumann, the president and CEO of Torngat Metals, Heather Exner-Pirot, a MLI fellow who specializes in natural resources, and Dwayne Menezes, the founder and managing director of Polar Research and Policy Initiative. The moderator was Ken Coates, a Munk Senior Fellow at the MLI.
Critical Minerals’ Expanding Role
Naumann said critical minerals are “critical” for two main reasons, with the first being their economic importance.
“Aluminum, titanium, nickel, and definitely potash, are very important for our country and future expansions,” Naumann said. “Future demand in the markets can be supplied out of Canada and continue the wealth creation.”
The second reason is increased demand as Canada and its allies push for a green energy transition. Critical minerals are widely used in the production of batteries needed to power electric vehicles.
“The forecast for rare earth … for the next 10, 15 years, is all the car companies launch electric vehicles. And naturally, the battery, where we need lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and so on, is they will grow in the same way,” Naumann said.
Exner-Pirot said that the demand for critical minerals is expected to increase by at least five-fold in the coming years due to the transition to low-carbon economies. The supply is further weighed down by global supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People haven’t figured out, or haven’t considered, the extent of the mining that we are going to need to get off of fossil fuels, and of course there are also environmental impacts of mining,” Exner-Pirot said.
“These kinds of factors have not been considered at a societal level to accept what is going to need to be the investment to get off of fossil fuels.”
Global demand for critical metals used for battery production will have grown exponentially by 2028, according to a 2020 report (pdf) from the Mining Association of Canada. The report estimates the demand for nickel to increase by over 1,200 percent, cobalt by roughly 260 percent, lithium by 575 percent, and graphite by 530 percent.
Security concerns stemming from over-dependence on exports from China is another key reason for Canada to direct more attention to the processing of critical minerals, panelists said.
In response to The Epoch Times’ request for comment, Exner-Pirot said that it made sense from a security perspective to decrease dependence on China by developing raw materials and processing capacity in Canada and North America, even if it’s more expensive.
While energy security in North America has focused on oil and gas independence in the past, as countries shift towards renewable energy sources, security around rare-earth metals “will become much more important,” Exner-Pirot said in an email.
“From a policy perspective, I think this means being more friendly to the domestic mining sector in terms of incentives and approvals, as well as developing social license for a significant ramp-up in mining activity,” she added.
Menezes highlighted the importance for Canada to collaborate and integrate with allied countries in developing a framework for securing critical mineral supplies.
“When we think about global supply chains the key emphasis must be on how do we integrate different capabilities among allied countries,” Menezes said.
“Not every stage and supply chain needs to be fulfilled domestically, it may happen to have capability in America that Canada can rely on, and vice versa,” he added.
Menezes said he welcomed further collaboration between the Five Eyes—the intelligence alliance between Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—which needs to “pull together their resources, resource intelligence, technical capabilities [and] project finance.”